what i wonder when i wander

Last Updated on February 22, 2021 by Dani

When I look outside the café, I could swear we are in Madrid. There is a wide, tree-lined boulevard and people speeding by a rate reserved for financial districts in capital cities. Just like in Spain, we are surrounded by a dialect of Spanish just outside my comfort zone, different enough to my Central American accent so that I am almost, though not entirely, sure I have understood everything correctly.

The coffee stop was necessary to beat back the 13 hour overnight flight the day before, and as soon as we are energy-infused, we head out along the pedestrian walkway in what is called the ‘microcentro’ of this busy city. The familiarity is again palpable, and in one word and a knowing nod, we realize we have also been here before. This looks just like Lisbon. The white tiles, a specific stylish flair, the same gritty feeling, and the street performers, like the human statues painted as the statue of liberty of the guy sitting down on what appears to be thin air.

Street performers
Lisbon street performer & Buenos Aires street performer

There are certain aspects that reveal that we are in South America, however: the heavily advertised Manu Chao concert this coming week and the fact that controversial (read: awesome) Mexican rock band Molotov is third largest on a festival bill under Kings of Leon and Fiona Apple later this month.

So this is what Buenos Aires is really like, I think to myself. That first day, the whole time we explore the city and for days afterward I can’t stop saying that out loud, either. For the first time in our lives and after over 2 years of traveling we have finally made it south of the equator, and yet, walking up the Avenida de Mayo away from the Casa Rosada (the ‘pink house’, Argentina’s government building a la the U.S. White House) there are very few clues to indicate we are not experiencing a very sunny Parisian summer afternoon.

Buenos Aires vs. Paris

The Argentine capital is in fact called the Paris of South America and the ornate neo-gothic and French Bourbon architecture inspire me to want a bit crusty baguette stacked with ridiculous amounts of fromage…

Initially, these strange feelings of familiarity muted what is normally this intense buzz I get when traveling to an entirely new part of the world. Like any drug, the first travel buzz is the best, and you spend the rest of your addiction chasing it. For me that was my first time in Costa Rica, at 16, speeding away from the airport too quickly in a rusty Jeep toward the greenest mountains that looked as though they housed no civilization but would actual reveal adorable little towns where our exchange students lived.

With long-term travel it’s impossible to sustain that buzz, but there are huge moments when it courses through our veins – arriving to Mexico City in the middle of the night back as relatively newbie travelers in July 2010, or landing in in Bangkok, Thailand in 2011 to begin our first experience in Asia.

So where was the buzz here in Buenos Aires, our first time on this continent, closer to Antarctica than Canada. I didn’t even check if the water went down the drain in the other direction.

Buenos Aires balcony vs. Spanish balcony

Are we jaded? Have we seen too much? These are the questions we were both privately asking ourselves those first days here in the city, and I wondered, terrified, if in fact I hadn’t lost my travel mojo, but my love of travel.

We are in Latin America’s most visited city, and a majestic city at that. This is a city in which its immigrants were able to build their incredible European architecture and thereby capture a magical feeling of starting in the new world in a way no city in America does. More inspiring, at least to me, are the old-fashioned restaurants with red leather cushions and imposing mahogany bars stocked with whiskey and red wine, where five to ten waiters in black and white uniforms hustle and bustle with trays and napkins serving tiny cups of coffee (you know, the size cups of coffee used to be) and heaping plates of medialunas and other typical sweets (you know, before calorie counting existed).  This is the city of Evita, who spoke from the balcony of that Casa Rosada.

The intellectual vibe here is unmistakable, with bookstores around the city as full as bars and cafes on a Saturday afternoon. And although the scent of smoked meat wafts around every corner of this carnivorous city, there is a vegetarian, vegan and organic movement so strong here that after over a week in town, Dani and I have eaten at a different vegetarian restaurant every single day. When we are not shoving down gooey, cheesy pizza and empanadas, that is, which trumps eating a French baguette any day of the week.

See how that happened?

Paris Cemetery & Buenos Aires Cemetery

Whatever that buzz was I was looking for, it never appeared. Its absence (and some patience), however, revealed exactly what it is I love about traveling. It’s the knowledge of what is happening today in another part of the world. While you read this, there is a good chance that in Mexico City right now there are throngs of people inside of La Ideal bakery, snapping up pastries, and that in Chiang Mai, Thailand a young monk in a saffron orange robe is probably glancing at his cell phone on public transportation, while the two wide-eyed foreigners also on board look in amazement at how much they actually have in common with monks. In Ottawa, locals are cycling to work, because there are hundreds of miles of great bike paths to do that, and in rural Laos, a mother is making sticky rice in a basket over a fire which her multi-generational family will eat in a circle in the front yard together at lunch.

The more I travel, the more I know that certain things around the world are the same. Small beach towns like Palolem in Goa or Samara in Costa Rica, are set up in a scarily similar way, down to at least half the tourist trinkets sold in the shacks and shops that line the streets. Also, every culture has some type of local dish with folded over dough that I am going to love: pizzas in Italy, empanadas in Buenos Aires, Polish pieriogies, Hungarian Langos, Mexican potato tacos, Indian naan bread preferably filled with paneer cheese and yes, baguettes – both the cheesy variety available on the streets of Paris and those with avocado and egg and cheese, best ordered with a side of spicy Papaya salad on the streets of Laos, a former French colony.

Is anything new anymore, I wondered when I first got here, the buzz kill of European familiarity having slapped me in the face in Buenos Aires.

Now I wonder if that matters.

As we begin our trek across this continent, from vineyards in Mendoza up to the top of Macchu Pichu, in Peru, is it so terrible that I will compare the wine I drink with that I’ve drunk in Italy or the incredible Inca civilization with the Mayan ruins I’ve scaled twice in Tikal, Guatemala.

Like most things in life, this makes me think about a scene from one of the best movies of all time, Pulp Fiction. Gangster Vincent Vega comes back from a stint in Europe and he says to his partner Jules, ‘You know what the funniest thing about Europe is?’ To which Jules replies, ‘What?’ Vincent explains, ‘It’s the little differences. They got the same sh*t over there that we got here, it’s just that over there it’s a little different’. Jules asks for an example. I can give him thousands. Not just from Europe, or Argentina, but everywhere in the world.

Madrid Sunday Antiques Market vs. Buenos Aires Sunday Antiques Market

For a while I wondered if travel was simply self-indulgent, but given some navel-gazing and a bit of real reflection, I can feel a buzz in my veins again when I think about discovering what the people of Cartagena, Colombia do on Saturday afternoons, or what kind of doughy masterpiece I’ll be shoveling down in Bolivia…

So I guess what I wonder is whether what’s really important about travel  is discovering the little differences and more importantly the big similarities around the world?

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Tags : buenos airesWhat I Wonder When I Wander


    1. We’ve actually found quite a few vegan places already – Buenos Aires is surprisingly vegetarian-friendly! And yes, putting together the pictures actually took quite a while – just looking through my thousands of pictures took ages 😉

  1. Very interesting post 🙂 I think what I would most enjoy would be to find and understand the small differences hidden behind the apparent similarities between places. Even if a place looks like the exact same as another one thousands of miles away, I think you can always find great differences in people’s values, behaviors and habits.

    1. Hi Clay, you’re definitely right about that. It took a couple of days to really get to know a couple of locals, and then you learn what the country is all about. When you reach that point, all of the physical similarities are background noise, for sure!

  2. Love this — and it’s great to see the photo side-by-side comparisons. I think you’re right that it’s often the littler things that make a place unique. Well, that and the people.

    1. Hey Adam, those pictures, the side-by-side images are what inspired me to write the post, because I couldn’t get them out of my mind when we first got to town. You’re right though, the people obviously make all the difference, of course.

  3. Very cool post. Big similarities or little differences? It varies for me. I find that in the places that initially seem most different from home, I look for similarities because it helps me feel more a part of a global community. On the other hand, when a place feels similar to home, that tends to be when I want to find some little difference that make it unique.

  4. I love the Pulp Fiction reference!

    Having arrived in Korea from Japan to a similar backdrop of electronics, phone & coffee shops as 4 out of every 5 shops, we’ve noticed that it’s the little things that make all the difference too. Just keep those eyes peeled you two.

    1. Thanks for the Pulp Fiction appreciation 🙂 After a couple of weeks, the city definitely has its own feeling to it and we absolutely love it!

  5. I get what you mean here! By the time I wound up in Lithuania after visiting the Czech Republic and Poland, I was a bit like, “eh, another beautiful old town and it’s cold” and left feeling fairly unimpressed. I only had a couple of days in the city though, so I didn’t ever get a “feel” for it, so to speak.

    As you point out here, self-reflection is necessary when travelling long-term so that you don’t lose that magic. I’m anticipating that I’ll have to do some next year, for sure!

    1. Hey Tom – exactly! It feels so spoiled in a way to be like, oh no, not another cathedral, or oh no not another erupting volcano to climb 🙂 and then the longer we’re at it, for me to think, oh no, not another European city? That is what threw me off because this was a whole city I was feeling like that about! But after these past two weeks, I can honestly say that BsAs has a feeling all its own, an incredible history, and I definitely love it in a completely different way to its Euro-counterparts…

  6. When I was travelling through Spain, my tour manager introduced me to a phrase that really stuck with me. ABC, Another Bloody Church. And that’s exactly how I felt by the end of the trip.

    But now that feeling’s worn off, and again every time I go to a new place it’s ‘we just have to see so & so church’. It’s funny, but I think I was just so overwhelmed by all those new things that I couldn’t fully appreciate them at the time.

    1. Oh no! I’m always going to think that now 🙂 ABC! It is a bit of travel fatigue, isn’t it. I think that could easily be it, because now, a few weeks later, we’re so enthusiastic about travel again! 🙂

  7. In my opinion, I don’t think you lost the mojo, I just think that Asia changes you as a traveler and person. Now when my friends want to plan travel, I tell them to do Asia last.
    I think Asia spoils us. There is so much to see, so much ancient history, inexpensive every thing (in most places), incredible food, kind people, exotic colors, and art/architecture that you won’t see any where else.
    I can see how the similarities between Europe and it’s former colonies in the Americas can make you feel like you aren’t seeing or tasting any thing new.
    It sounds like by seeing concerts and trying to find unique experiences, that you are doing some things off the radar to keep it fresh.

    1. Fidel, we both agree- South East Asia ruined us 🙂 It’s so cheap and so interesting. However, one thing I prefer over on the side of the world is the incredible architecture. The more we learn about BsAs, I respect that even more. Like the Palacio Barolo, based entirely on Dante’s Divine Comedy – from the structure to the design. Love this post from For 91 Days about it: The details of Buenos Aires are incredible!

    1. Hi Hannah, thanks a lot. We’ll have been here six weeks in total, and feel like we are never going to get sick of this place! We liked your site, thanks for sending the link through!

  8. I agree very much with Fidel’s comment. I’ve avoided traveling much in Europe because I fear I’d have this reaction. I really love to shock my system by visiting places vastly different from the lifestyle I’m accustomed to — Southeast Asia has done that for me!

    1. Definitely, SEA was so different, as is Mexico and Central America, too. But I have to say that now that we have been here for a while, Buenos Aires is really different and super unique!

  9. This was a very timely read for me. I’m setting off on another RTW trip in 2 days.

    I have been on the road full time since April 2011 and while this trip will take me to some one of my favorites cities ever, Rio de Janiero, and to a few of my bucket list places (India and African Safari) I’m not as excited as I was when I first set off. Sometimes I feel guilty that the excitement level isn’t as high but than I come to realize that while yes traveling is daunting each place changes me a bit and I love the women I have become from traveling.

    Here is to a new year full of life altering travel and of course lots and lots of FROLICKING! Happy 2013!

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